With apologies to my friends who work/have worked in television, I'm going to get out the big brush and paint some gross generalizations. There is little that irks me more than TV journalism. I believe if you asked my print journalist friends (and they were honest) they'd say the same thing. Between the print and TV folk, it has always been a battle of deliberate and witty vs. loud and pretty. My participation in this gross generalization began when I discovered that the TV reporters and anchors on campus at WIU were just reading the stories we had gathered and written straight from the newspaper … often word-for-word. And never with any attribution. It got so ridiculous that I would occasionally sabotage my own work just to see if the on-air talent would read it that way. And they would. The Legend of Ron Burgundy? Nothing legendary about it. That film might as well have been a documentary.
Anchorman was the first thing I thought of as I watched this interview with Moore, Oklahoma, tornado-survivor Barbara Garcia.
Now, I know it is not easy to think on your feet. It isn't easy to ask the right questions and get that live soundbite to work at the right moment. The print folk have the luxury of being able to edit (and be edited) before their work was published. The live TV folk, well, they leave it all hanging out there, and often say some pretty dumb things just to keep the action going. About 1:20 into the clip, the reporter interrupts Barbara and does just that.
“Are you able to comprehend yet what happened here?” the reporter asks.
Barbara gets a little miffed at such a condescending question. The survivor had just finished telling the reporter that she “had a gameplan.” Barbara knew exactly what had happened. “Exactly,” she says pointedly.
And then, grasping for the next question, the truth comes out in a stutter. “What do you think about this? This is your neighborhood. I can’t imagine …” the reported says. You see, this isn’t about Barbara at all. This interview is now all about the reporter and her fears. It is about the reporter and the summation of her audience’s fears. And, for as much as I hate to admit it, this is not just because she’s a TV reporter. I do this, too. We all do this.
We all watch stuff like this and say, “Dear God, this could happen to me. But Barbara is so calm. She shouldn’t be so calm. She needs to feel our anxiety so we feel better.” And we’re thankful for the reporter’s questions, because they relieve us by taking our fear and piling it on top of the people who already lived through it.
Saturday, after participating in meeting to strategize on what United Methodists in Northern Illinois can/should be doing to stop the systemic violence that plagues Chicago’s streets, I was waiting for a bus back north when a man in his 60s asked me what had been going on. I shared some of the details with him, after which he told me that his grandson had been shot dead a year prior … just a block from where we stood. I was humbled to have him share such a personal story with me, a stranger. I wanted to hear more about his grandson, but before I could ask, another meeting participant chimed in, saying “Where do you go to church?”
He replied, indignant, “I don’t go to church. Church people ain’t done shit to help make this right other than tell us this is happening ‘cause we ain’t there. Fuck the church.”
When we, as Christians, find ourselves in the midst of tragedy … when we find ourselves as observers standing in the rubble, it makes good sense to just be quiet and listen. We don’t have the power to fix it. We don’t have the ability to turn back time.
When in the role of helper and comforter, “Tell me what happened” is the best, and only thing we should say.
The best part of Barbara's interview is, of course, the appearance of her missing dog. He is alive. What is important to note is this: the dog doesn’t come out because of the reporter’s voice. The dog, and hope with him, emerges at the sound of Barbara’s voice. The survivor.
I believe that, all too often, we enter into situations as that reporter did: expecting that nothing good will emerge. We want to revel in the brokenness and grieve all our forthcoming, and long-past griefs. Like the well-intentioned person eavesdropping at the bus stop, we think we have the answers. But listening is the answer.
Because, when just listening, we might just hear some amazing things; things that should turn everyone’s fear into hope. And that is the story we all need to hear.